Dr. Norman J. Lewiston, a professor of pediatrics at the Stanford University School of Medicine, believed in the institution of marriage.
He believed in it so much that he got married three times--without ever having the benefit of a divorce.
For more than five years, the prominent doctor lived a life of deception, juggling first two, then three wives--as well as a busy schedule of teaching classes and treating patients.
His complicated life began unraveling this summer when his third wife, Robyn Phelps, a nurse in San Diego, became suspicious and uncovered his secret.
In August, when the 52-year-old physician died suddenly of a heart attack, the truth surfaced, shocking those in the Stanford medical community who knew him as a dedicated doctor and a pioneer in research on cystic fibrosis.
“Once you had a relationship with Norm, you had a relationship for the rest of your life,” Phelps said in an interview. “You never said goodby to Norm.”
To outsiders, the bearded, overweight Lewiston appeared as a manipulative villain who lived a lie and took advantage of women.
But to many who knew him, he was a caring person who couldn’t say no; a doctor who often witnessed the death of patients but had difficulty parting with people; a man whose life went quietly out of control and who did not have the inner strength to be honest.
The way he conducted his personal life, however, has left a stain on an otherwise stellar career, raised questions about the way he spent at least $7,800 in research funds and left a tangle of legal questions for his three wives to sort out.
“It’s easy to fantasize about how much fun he was having, but I think it was hell for Norman,” said one colleague who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I think he got himself into a complete mess and didn’t have the character to get out of it.”
By all accounts, Lewiston was intensely committed to his patients and was nationally recognized for his work in treating cystic fibrosis, a crippling genetic lung disease that often kills its victims in childhood. A professor at the medical school since 1974, he helped develop protocols for heart-lung transplants and served as chief of allergy and pulmonary care at the Lucile Salter Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford.
Those who knew him say he was not a slick operator who was simply out for himself. They suggest that his weakness in handling his personal affairs was the flip side of his strength as a doctor: his devotion to people.
“He truly hated to let go of anyone,” said Katy Lewiston, 44, his second wife.
“He was an incredibly kind, caring person, the kind of person you instantly like,” said Phelps, 42, his third wife. “Everybody just loved him.”
Lewiston married his first wife, Diana B. Lewiston, 51, in 1960. They lived in a modest one-story house in Palo Alto, not far from the university, and reared three children.
In 1985, he married his second wife, Katy, at a public ceremony attended by many of his colleagues from Stanford. They, like Katy, believed that he had divorced his first wife. The couple shared a house in nearby Los Altos, and she became his wife in public, attending events connected with the medical school and the children’s hospital, where she had worked.
In 1989, he married Phelps. They had known each other well since the 1970s, when they worked together at the hospital before she moved to San Diego. Before they got married, she said, Lewiston showed her copies of what he claimed were divorce records from his earlier marriages.
“He forged them, I guess,” she said.
Using the excuse of his medical work, Lewiston split his time among the three, following what must have been a rigorous schedule.
At the end of his workday, he usually went home to Katy Lewiston, wife No. 2, according to sources familiar with the arrangement. Around 10 p.m. he would leave, saying he would sleep at the hospital.
Instead, however, he went to Palo Alto to the home he shared with Diana Lewiston--often leaving early in the morning to go back to Los Altos and have breakfast with Katy Lewiston.
About two weekends each month, he traveled to San Diego to visit Phelps.
Much of Lewiston’s philandering apparently was made possible by the attitude of his first wife, Diana, who was willing to tolerate the arrangement as long as he slept at their Palo Alto home and did not seek a divorce, said the sources, who asked not to be identified. Diana Lewiston declined through her attorney to be interviewed.
Occasionally, Lewiston would take a vacation with one of his wives, but it was the holidays that could be the most demanding.
“I know for a fact there was one Thanksgiving when he had three dinners,” Phelps said. “Of course he was overweight--he had three wives feeding him.”
Phelps said she began to hear reports from friends that Lewiston was seen with his other wives when he was in the Bay Area. She sought the assistance of an investigator, and in June she was crushed to discover that he had never divorced them.
She sought to annul their marriage and, not wanting to see him again, negotiated an agreement through her attorney, Gregory Alford, that Lewiston would pay her a small cash settlement. He paid the money, she said, but never signed the court papers, and so she was still married to him at the time of his death.
Katy Lewiston did not learn of Lewiston’s other lives until the day he died, when she was notified by Stanford Hospital that she was not his only wife.
“It was a tremendous shock,” she said. “It has caused a lot of unhappiness.”
Now, his three wives are attempting to recover from his death and duplicity in their own ways.
Diana Lewiston, his first wife, has been named executor of his estate and is seeking to recover her husband’s share of any property he held with his other wives--including the house he shared with Katy Lewiston.
Phelps and Katy Lewiston, who had been friends at Stanford before their marriages, are weighing offers from all manner of publications and television producers to buy their stories.
Katy Lewiston, who operates a secretarial service, has begun writing a manuscript as a record of the marriage and as a sort of therapy, according to her attorney, Jacques Dulin.
Phelps said any money she receives would go to pay for defending herself in the lawsuit she expects Diana Lewiston to file. “I have no desire to get rich off my pain,” she said.
Meanwhile, Stanford auditors are attempting to sort out what Lewiston did with money under his control at the hospital. While they have found no irregularities in grants awarded to the university, officials said they had uncovered an unusual bank account in which the doctor deposited research funds. Of the $37,000 deposited into the account this year, auditors have questions about how the doctor spent $7,800 of it.
“We haven’t found any significant problem except for money that was paid to Norm and paid into this outside account,” said hospital spokesman Diarmuid McGuire. “We’re looking into the nature of those expenses.”
Lewiston also helped raise private funds for cystic fibrosis research. Colleagues shudder at the thought that some of that money might have been diverted to his unusual lifestyle. But auditors have not reviewed those accounts.
Few in the Stanford medical community are willing to talk about Lewiston’s marriages. But one person who said he was stunned by the news was Clyde Mosier, an investment counselor who stages annual golf tournaments that raised more than $500,000 for Lewiston’s cystic fibrosis research.
“It knocked my socks off,” said Mosier, whose son, Ross, died of the disease 11 years ago. “When I look back at Norm, I’ve got a picture of a guy who was brilliant, but just never learned the no word.” When Lewiston died, “I think his body just rebelled at the end and said, ‘I just can’t put up with this.’ ”
In recent months, there were signs that the strain of keeping three marriages alive was beginning to catch up with Lewiston. Since early in the year, he seemed to be under great stress, Phelps said. At Stanford, it was beginning to show in his work. “People were covering for him,” said one colleague. “He had a habit that was draining his energy.”
About 10 days before he died, Norman and Katy Lewiston attended the annual Ross Mosier golf tournament, and as luck would have it, the doctor won the door prize: a weekend in San Francisco. “Katy was very excited,” one witness said, “but Norm didn’t look very excited at all.”